Council to take up shoreline policies with new year

South Beach resident John Steiner wants to add a room over his garage.

But after a pre-application meeting with city planners, Steiner says, he was told he would have to replace his lawn with native vegetation. He objects to the loss of use.

“The grass is pretty scruffy, but that’s where we have our lawn chairs and play ball,” Steiner said. “I’ll scrap the plan to add a rental apartment if I have to give up my front yard.”

Disagreement over what might trigger requirements for waterfront replanting – and precisely what regulations are in effect today – continues to hang over review of the city’s Shoreline Management Program. And saying they’ve heard enough argument on each side, the Bainbridge Island City Council has instructed the Planning Commission to cut short the debate. The council wants to see recommendations on shoreline policy revisions by early January.

While the directive took planning commissioners by surprise, they agreed at their meeting last week to comply. The first step was to officially scrap the planning staff’s controversial update of the 1996 shoreline plan, and review only the existing regulations.

“Our understanding is that the public believes there are problems with the existing document,” said planning commission member Donna McKinney.

“They want us to ‘fix ‘96.’ But even if we use the 1996 rules as a baseline, we can interject material from the current draft.”

Dumping the staff draft was a good start, said Gary Tripp, president of Bainbridge Concerned Citizens, a group formed in opposition to new regulations.

“That’s absolutely a step in the right direction,” Tripp said.

The staff draft was a set of policy statements that included objectives such as restoring shorelines and reducing non-conforming uses over time. The commission balked at reviewing those policies without knowing what the new implementing regulations might look like, and decided instead to review what is already on the books.

The commission had earlier planned a more extensive set of workshops and meetings on shoreline issues that could have lasted well into the spring. But City Council chair Michael Pollock said the meetings are decreasingly useful.

“We’re hearing from a great many people, but we’re not actually hearing much new information,” Pollock said.

New policies

To compensate for the new deadline, the commission has scheduled a meeting on Dec. 5 in addition to those set for Dec. 12 and Dec. 19. On Jan. 9, the commission will make recommendations to the council.

Commissioners also agreed to concentrate on what have emerged as the three most controversial issues – native vegetation, non-conforming uses and over-water structures like docks and bulkheads.

A lengthy discussion at last week’s meeting showed the commission divided on the question of whether the city should require a buffer of native vegetation – possibly including trees – between waterfront homes and the shoreline.

Three commissioners – Bill Luria, Mike Cox and Julie Kriegh – favored requiring such buffers, while McKinney, Lafe Myers and chair Sean Parker said buffers should be encouraged through education and incentives, but not required.

The effort to revise the city’s shoreline regulations was begun under a state mandate that required cities to revise their shoreline management programs by the end of this year. But both that mandate and the state’s guidelines for shoreline programs were withdrawn in the face of a lawsuit brought by statewide business interests.

New guidelines are being negotiated between the state and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The commission was given a peek at portions of the draft guidelines by Dennis Reynolds, attorney for BCC who is also part of the team negotiating the new rules.

The portions of the guidelines that Reynolds provided emphasize voluntary and city-funded restoration projects over regulations, and say that buffer requirements “do not apply retroactively to existing uses and structures.”

Commissioner Myers suggested it would make more sense to defer further city action until the state issues its new guidelines, which Reynolds said will also happen some time in January.

“We don’t really know at this point what our program needs to say,” Myers said. “Without that, we are engaging in a process I call ‘ready, fire, aim.’”

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